“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” – Douglas MacArthur
A man notices a leak in the dam one day. The next day another leak springs up. Before he knows it, each day brings countless leaks, more than his training and tools can handle. He brings his friends, similarly armed and educated, to patch up the holes and prevent further damage. The leaks keep coming, day by day, and eventually puddles begin to form, pooling around the man and his friends, dampening their shoes, slowly creeping up their legs. Soon the puddles collect into pools, forcing the men to wade, making their repair work difficult and rushed. The pools deepen. Then they run red, and behind the dam a tidal wave waits impatiently, ready to burst.
Depression (and suicide) affects harrowing numbers of American college students every year. Away from home, family, and familiarity, students face overwhelming adjustments academically, socially, and personally. For some these come easily. For many more, adjustment gives way to uncertainty, disillusionment, and overwhelmed chaos (better words). Suicide is one of the three top killers of American college students (Burrell; Gallagher; NIMH). In 2008, more than a quarter of students nationally reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function” in the year before they were asked (Burrell). Now not every depressive flash leads to suicide, and not every student struggling to function has depression. But the trends cannot be ignored, and our system needs to change. (eh)
In late August 2007, I teared up as I watched my brother enter New South, his freshman dorm at Georgetown University. The oldest child in our family, Will was the guinea pig for college — the first of us to be thrust into that world of unknowns and changes. Georgetown, of course, expects a lot of its students academically and as individuals embodying Jesuit ideals. Hoyas are supposed to care for others, nurturing their humanity and compassion during their time on the Hilltop, so that they may be able to help others do the same later in life. Looking back, Will seemed perfect for this: blessed with a sensitive awareness of others and a desire to be good, to be decent, he should have flourished as he grew into a “true Hoya.”
Will never got his Georgetown degree. In the spring of 2010, and surely for some time before, the social and academic pressures weighed him down, driving him into a profound depression. At the time, I didn’t really know why Will was home early or how his illness affected him. All I knew was my big brother was home early, so I got extra time to play with and bother him, as all younger siblings have a duty to do. I find it hard to consider Will lucky; he fought for the better part of three years to truly get back on his feet, to stand up proudly as the genial, witty role model I had known for so long. But Will was lucky in a lot of ways. He had a loving family and support network, and he had a school ready to help him work through his problems. Will is back, and I couldn’t be happier. As my brother struggled to face his demons and sources of anguish, it was easy to wonder how this strange problem had taken hold of such a loving and curious person and learner. He was fitted well to love college — the fun and the work — yet he still fell victim to this illness, this burden, this exceptional issue (better word). I have learned, however, that depression and suicide and mental health crises don’t care much for your disposition or your talents. We all have to be on alert, for college life breeds strife, and Will is no longer an exception.
Approximately a quarter of college students struggle with mental illness, and more than 40 percent report various symptoms of depression (Kerr; NIMH). The stresses of college life, birthed from the rigors of personal, social, and academic habits, affect an immense number of students at most schools.Many of us go to college and find ourselves far from home, largely alone for the first time in our lives. At some point, everyone longs for the comfort of old friends, of family and familiar roads, sights, and sounds. Between the comfort of home and the challenges of adult life lies college, rife with novel problems and the murkiness of transitioning into a world filled with new people and adversities. According to the ACHA’s most recent undergraduate survey, more than 46 percent of students “felt things were hopeless” at some point in the last year, including more than half of female students. Moreover, more than 84 percent of students reported having “felt overwhelmed by all [they] had to do” (ACHA). Some look at these findings and see nothing more than young people slowly adjusting to the college lifestyle, kids fighting to fit in and keep up with their work. Loneliness or hopelessness seem to these people mere inconveniences, obstacles to be overcome as we age and mature.
We see so many numbers in our daily lives that we often forget about the people they represent. So when someone reads the above data, or when someone hears that eight percent of American college students “seriously considered suicide” in the year before they were asked, there is a good chance they forget that this means that MORE THAN 1.7 MILLION STUDENTS CONTEMPLATE TAKING THEIR OWN LIFE EVERY YEAR (ACHA). This is not even considering the additional five percent of college students who considered killing themselves outside of the 12-month frame (ACHA). And when I tell you that the ACHA reports 9.1 percent of students having attempted suicide at some point in their lives, you probably don’t do the math out. You probably fail to understand that just short of two million college students have, at some point, decided that death was their best possible course of action.
Of course, our universities and institutions are not completely oblivious to the mental health epidemics running rampant on their campuses. Most schools have some form of counseling service available, but the shortcomings of our current apparatus stand out. According to an APA brief, only 56 percent of four-year institutions offer localized psychiatric counseling, and only 13 percent of American community colleges offer such services (Chamberlin). Moreover, even at schools with services available, there has been a stunning shift in the new millenium, with far greater numbers of students seeking help for significant mental health concerns.
According to the ACCA’s most recent survey of college counselors, 44 percent of clients have “severe psychological problems,” up from only 16 percent in 2000 (Gallagher). In this same survey, 80 percent of reported suicide victims had not “sought counseling center assistance.” The growing number of college students with serious mental illnesses has overwhelmed treatment centers throughout the country. The survey reports increases across the board in colleges providing services crucial to the health of their students and employees, but this growth has not kept up with the rapid expansion of students’ problems. More than 30 percent of surveyed counseling centers report overloaded schedules leading to wait lists being formed for students (Gallagher). Almost half of the staffs reported dealing with their clients in ways developed to avoid wait lists; for example, more than 75 percent of centers report seeing non-crisis patients less frequently so as to avoid waiting lists for students.
We cannot fault these centers or their universities. Rather, they simply attempt to be as efficient as possible, given the overwhelming numbers of students entering their centers. With 88 percent of centers reporting an increase of clients already on psychiatric medication to the ACCA in 2013, and 94 percent an increase in students with serious problems, radical increases in funding and training for psychiatric centers is necessary in order to adequately serve and protect the at-risk students of American universities.
Considering the increases in students with serious concerns, centers must be able to allocate in-depth, individualized treatment to larger and larger numbers of clients. Many researchers see typical generalized methods as functional, but the consensus is that in order to fully treat students, every case must be treated as “a fresh therapeutic challenge” (Grayson and Cooper). Grayson and Cooper examined contemporary college treatment methods and found that the key to successful treatment is the ability to combine methods and techniques “into a unified, integrative treatment.” This depth of focus is currently unrealistic given the growing numbers of students requiring significant service.
This is not to say deep, focused personal therapy has been rendered impossible. Rather, solutions do exist and have been enacted at many American universities. The Jed Foundation, a non-profit suicide prevention advocacy group, awarded 30 schools their “seal of approval” for their respective mental health resources earlier this year (Atteberry). The foundation was founded in 2000 after Donna and Phil Satow lost their son to suicide. With Georgetown among those awarded, the foundation advocates free resources and early intervention among students. Jed is still growing in recognition and influence, but its leaders hope these 30 institutions will stand out to other schools nationwide (Atteberry).
The notion of early intervention, or even prevention, for suffering students, should not be taken lightly. Far too often, students enter treatment, or worse injure themselves, long after they should have been meeting with a psychiatric expert. The Jed Foundation is not alone in this thinking; many studies and national trends suggest schools should strive to assess students’ health early and often, rather than waiting until problems arise (Eshun; Kay and Schwartz). Forcing students to learn about causes and effects of mental illnesses and recognizing early signs of distress could prove crucial in the fight to mollify the epidemic on college campuses.
Of course, money presents problems for schools looking to augment their mental health resources. Many colleges must sacrifice necessary staff size and depth of individual treatment in order to stay within their financial boundaries. Organizations like the Jed Foundation and Active Minds seek to spread awareness of issues like depression and to minimize the stigma surrounding having mental illnesses, but schools across the country have struggled to provide adequate services in treatment and outreach given the overloaded schedules often found in counseling centers (Domonell). Students in need often face limitations regarding the depth and frequency of their meetings with counselors, allowing for the exacerbation and development of their mental health crises.
Federally, Congress has taken notice of these concerns but has failed to take action. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization of 2013 was introduced to Congress in early 2013 but has not been passed and seems unlikely to be enacted in the near future (govtrack.us). The proposal builds off of a 2004 suicide prevention bill named for a senator’s son lost to suicide and would increase grants for colleges nationally, as well as providing state grants for suicide prevention activity (Domonell; govtrack.us). The bill has been introduced multiple times but has failed to even make it to a vote. Considering the national data and trends, even this bill would probably not alleviate the struggles of counseling centers, but federal recognition and action regarding these issues will be vital in progressing this issue to the point of eradication. Without proper funding, we cannot experiment with innovative treatment programs and education. Without leaders acting like leaders, the system’s inefficiency and shortcomings will linger. Certainly we cannot hope to establish a suicide or depression-free environment, but vast room for improvement exists, and our legislators and officials must take action so that we may begin to transition into this space.
Recent history suggests that our federal government is not moved to action easily (no citation needed). The suicide of one senator’s son seems, at this point, unlikely to further the fight against the mental health epidemic. In our world of mass exposure to mass media on a daily basis, issues around the world flash before our faces then quickly disappear. We hear equally of fame and famine, of trivialities and tragedies alike. In the modernizing sphere, it can be difficult to empathize with our fellow human beings, and even harder to recognize the actions necessary for assuaging whatever problem they face. As I scroll through tweets and updates and attention-seeking headlines, I understand our inability to appreciate the profundity of human struggles. But then there’s Will. Maybe it takes a problem affecting our own daily life for us to pursue rectifying it, and maybe that’s okay. But if this is the case, our responsibility as human beings lies in our obligation to speak out and persist in our defense of issues that must be addressed. So here’s my shot. Because statistics don’t scar. There are people behind the headlines, behind the numbers.